Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chanel: The Beginning

Her name is synonymous with style. Disdaining corsets and frilly ornamentation, Coco Chanel’s look was perfectly suited to the liberated flapper era, yet she maintained her position at the pinnacle of the fashion world until her death in 1971. However, it is Chanel’s early years that fascinated director Anne Fontaine, who focuses on the “rags” portion of her rags-to-riches story in Coco Before Chanel (trailer here), which opens in New York tomorrow.

A trailblazing model of independence, Chanel famously never married. She certainly had her share of lovers though, perhaps including Igor Stravinsky, but that will have to wait for an upcoming film (also from the same distributor, Sony Pictures Classics). Yet throughout Before, Fontaine clearly implies the pain of finding herself suddenly orphaned (along with her sister Adrienne) was the greatest formative experience of Chanel’s life, fueling her drive to succeed and shaping her relationships with men.

When the audience first meets the Chanel sisters, they are performing songs in a rowdy nightclub, where they are expected to shill champagne in between numbers. Actually, neither is much of a vocal stylist, but Coco is a wizard with needle and thread. When it becomes clear they have no future in cabaret, both sisters become secret lovers of ostensibly upstanding society gentlemen. Though she chafes at the expectations of her new position in life, Chanel has yet to become the future paragon of independence. Essentially, Before could have been titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Kept Woman.

Audrey Tautou plays Chanel as part Audrey Hepburn and part Elaine Stritch. Frankly, the Stritch half is more fun. At times, her peevish appeal to her wealthy lovers seems a bit obscure. Still, Benoît Poelvoorde becomes convincingly captivated by her, finding unexpected depth and humanity as her initially lecherous lover-keeper, Etienne Balsan.

With the carefully worded credit line of: “freely adapted from the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux,” Before seems to roughly conform to Chanel’s biography, passing a cursory wiki inspection (with allowances made for dramatic license). Fontaine and her co-screenwriters only take Chanel up to her first big triumph as a designer, so those hoping for high fashion intrigue should look elsewhere (perhaps the 1981 biographical melodrama Chanel Solitaire starring Timothy Dalton and Rutger Hauer will be running on cable). Likewise, Before completely avoids Chanel’s controversial activities during World War II. It is just scrappy young Chanel trying to find her place in the world.

Though scandalous things happen during the film, they are largely unseen and rarely spoken of directly. In fact, Before is a conventionally respectable prestige picture, but it is unlikely to be a player during awards season or to factor on many critics’ top ten lists. While certainly a good fix for Francophiles, most viewers will simply find it a modestly pleasant diversion. It opens tomorrow (9/25) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Paris Theatre.